Ripe time to give ICT education for girls a boost

Ripe time to give ICT education for girls a boost

Arisa, 17, a student of Unesco’s Learning Coin initiative, works with a tablet provided through the initiative. (Photo: UNESCO)

Supakarn Jantawang has a plan. Inspired by design thinking, she wants to work with her school’s student council committee in Chumphon, a province in the south of Thailand, to manage food waste in collaboration with nearby vendors. For her, education about information and communications technologies (ICTs) is more than facts and figures — design thinking has given her a critical-thinking approach to solve problems systematically step by step, which she thinks will help in her future career as a doctor.

For an increasing number of people, in Thailand and worldwide, the knowledge and skills associated with ICTs are important in almost every area of life, not just work or school, but also in their communities and personal lives. Yet equal access to education, training and opportunities is still limited, including for girls and women, as well as lower-income groups, people with disabilities, those living in rural areas and the elderly.

Equal access to education is a fundamental human right, and a necessary foundation of sustainable development. There is growing awareness among policymakers and educators in Thailand, and most importantly on the part of girls and young women themselves, about the importance of ICTs and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and their own full and equal capabilities relative to their male peers.

“All genders have equal rights — every woman has the ability and potential in ICT that is not inferior to men,” Jidapa Nitiwirakun, a college student in Chon Buri, said. “As a person that represents young women and persons with disabilities in my country, I hope I can be a part of a bigger community, able to provide useful ideas and help make a difference.” Ms Jidapa studied coding last term and has a particular interest in AI.

International Girls in ICT Day Thailand 2021 led by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) with partner UN agencies, builds awareness about the gender digital divide, supports technology education and skills training, and encourages girls and young women to pursue careers in STEM-related fields. In Thailand, the initiative is co-organised with the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission, and partners in the private sector.

Covid-19 has clearly exposed the digital divide — not just connectivity and access to digital devices, but the “haves” and “have nots” of people being able to take full advantage of technologies both for their livelihoods and quality of life. In Thailand, connectivity rates are relatively high with most people online via mobile devices, and almost 95% of schools having internet access, on average with one computer per 17 students.

For Thailand’s population as a whole, however, ITU data show that only 9% of people have “basic” ICT skills such as downloading and installing software. Across Asean, the gap between women and men in access to the digital economy is less about connectivity, and more concerned with advanced metrics including skills, entrepreneurship opportunities and access to STEM occupations, according to an Economic Research Institute for Asean and East Asia February 2021 paper.

The global 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has gender equality built into its DNA, explicitly recognised by Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 and integral to all of the 17 SDGs. In Thailand, the national development plan to break out of the middle-income trap and build a bio-circular green economy is increasingly in alignment with the SDGs and women’s empowerment efforts.

Thailand stands as a remarkable example where girls and women actually tend to outperform boys and men in terms of educational outcomes, with nearly equal rates of access to digital devices and internet connectivity. That achievement does not, however, translate into equal participation and representation in politics, the economy and society, with a gender wage gap that has narrowed recently but still remains at 10.9%, according to recent ILO data.

The International Girls in ICT Day initiative in Thailand has focused on cybersecurity, smart farming and AI, with participants sharing their aspirations in areas as diverse as online businesses, digital marketing and brand-building, hospitality, cybersecurity and leveraging technology to work towards the SDGs.

At present in Thailand, 97% of 16- to 19-year-olds use the internet for social media, but only 17% for e-learning, according to the “Mapping the Digital Divide in the School: Education of Thailand” study developed by ITU. Such data are essential for evidence-based policymaking and include every sector of society, with gaps in key areas such as violence against women and ICT skills.

Amid all of the challenges, there is at the same time a growing collective commitment to gender equality and recognition that what benefits girls and women, benefits us all. The growing ICT sector has increasing and diverse opportunities for highly skilled girls and young women who are still underrepresented in ICT STEM education and careers. The social and economic disruptions caused by the pandemic, which are taking such a toll on wellbeing and livelihoods, can provide us an opportunity to build a more equitable and sustainable world.